If you’re like most people, you probably take your cell phone for granted.
We’re so used to the ability to talk to anyone at the press of a button that it’s hard to imagine life without it! But like many other modern conveniences, cell phones rely on a centralized grid to function properly. Unfortunately, that grid is liable to go down in a variety of situations, from storms to man-made disasters.
While certain features of your phone may still work if cell towers are down, the best way to communicate reliably is with an emergency communication device such as a CB radio or satellite phone. Every communication device has its own pros and cons, and preparation is always required.
How To Use Your Phone To Communicate When the Grid Is Down
Just because the cell towers go down it doesn’t mean you can’t use your smartphone. It also doesn’t mean the cell towers will actually go down at all.
Cellular Communication May Still Work for a Short Period
Your ability to communicate with your phone during a disaster depends on why the cell towers are down. If the grid was intentionally shut down, such as in controlled outages, you may still have some flexibility.
Although cell phone towers rely on the grid to remain powered, most have a reserve of backup power that will keep them online for a few hours even after the grid is shut off. This means that you may be able to get in a few calls or texts early on during an outage.
Of course, others will likely be doing the same, so there may be a significant delay before your texts can get past the competition.
Unfortunately, most disasters causing physical damage to the towers or fibers eliminate this option.
You Can Try Using Wi-Fi
Just because cellular power is off doesn’t mean that local Wi-Fi is. If you switch your phone to Wi-Fi, you may still be able to send texts. Unlike texting, making phone calls over Wi-Fi usually requires specific settings in your phone.
Depending on your provider, you may have to set up Wi-Fi calling in advance by contacting the company.
Regardless, your phone’s battery life is still very limited and Wi-Fi is easily compromised, so having backup means of communication is always recommended.
Short-Range Ways To Communicate When a Cell Tower Is Down
You may want to communicate with close-by loved ones or neighbors after the cell towers are down. Local radio communication may be limited but is a common and straightforward method.
Use FRS Walkie-Talkies
FRS (Family Radio Service) walkie-talkies are common two-way radios that operate on 22 frequencies set aside by the FCC for use by families.
With a low cost, high availability, and no license required, FRS walkie-talkies are perfect for short-distance communication between several people.
Equipping nearby friends and family members with walkie-talkies in case of an emergency is a good idea, but it should be noted that its use is limited.
Despite claims by some manufacturers, FRS walkie-talkies are limited to only a 1-2 miles of range due to being restricted to 2 watts maximum.
Use GMRS Walkie-Talkies
GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) walkie-talkies are able to do anything an FRS walkie-talkie can do and more. GMRS radios can operate on the same 22 channels as FRS walkie-talkies in addition to 8 repeater channels.
On top of a more inclusive range, the FCC allows GMRS walkie-talkies to operate on a maximum of 5 watts.
This extends the reach of a GMRS to approximately 10 miles depending on obstructions, plus more with repeaters.
The trade-off for this extra power is a higher price and a required license, making GMRS radios not as accessible to most people.
Equip Your Family With CB Radios
Another short-wave option is CB (Citizens band) radio. CB radios are regularly used by truckers due to their low cost and ease of use.
With 40 channels, the ability to mount your car with an antenna for portability, and a designated emergency channel, CB radios are easy to recommend.
As with FRS and GMRS, CB Radios have a limited range. A maximum of 4 watts limits average communication to less than 10 miles.
CB radios are less common than walkie-talkies, so the likelihood of getting in contact with a nearby neighbor is not common. This may or may not be a benefit to you depending on how private you want your communication with others to be.
Long-Range Ways to Communicate when a Cell Tower is Down
Short-range communication may be acceptable in many cases, but a long-range communication device is critical to ensure long-term survival.
Use a Satellite Phone
While it may be easy for the grid to go down, satellites aren’t going anywhere. Satellite phones are incredibly reliable communication devices that can be used anywhere in the world.
With excellent range and clarity, satellite phones are always good to have on hand. Unfortunately, satellite phones are expensive to buy and even more expensive to use.
Most satellite phones charge by the minute, so regular communication with them can add up very quickly.
Communicate With a Ham Radio
The golden standard for emergency communication is the ham radio. Ham radios can pick up on multiple channels and frequencies, including 24-hour weather forecasts and national security channels.
Ham radios are regularly used by search and rescue teams and are excellent for getting in contact with others during national emergencies. Basic transceivers vary dramatically in cost to accommodate almost any budget.
There are a few downsides to ham radios, however.
They can be difficult to use and require regular practice. Unlike a walkie-talkie, you can’t just pick a ham radio up and use it without training.
An FCC license is required to operate on amateur frequencies. Thankfully, these licenses are inexpensive to get through the ARRL or other qualified organizations as long as you can pass a written exam.
Ensuring the ability to communicate with loved ones or emergency services during a disaster cannot be emphasized enough.
You may still be able to get some use from your cell phone after the grid goes down, but this cannot be relied upon.
There are pros and cons to any off-grid communication method, so having several options prepared is always a good idea.